Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Body Clock

How do we explain the phenomenon of changes in the perception of time in aging?

Joseph Mazur
Source: Joseph Mazur

There are reasonable explanations of why aging gives one a sense that time is accelerating. First among them is that the body is filled with organic cellular clocks that are moderately synchronized with the clock on the wall. The typical human body generally follows that clock’s hour hand with a more limp regard for the minute; however, with age that sync tends to skid.

The inner sense of time does not flow evenly in aging; it’s largely dependent on countless cells of the human body. Physiological time tends to amend psychological time, since metabolic functions influence any sense of time-flow obliquely connected to cellular activity.

We know enough about the chemistry of the body to know that with age there are increased toxins coming from both the natural deterioration of cell tissue and from the cumulative onslaughts of environmental contaminants. Until our body organs evolve to better defend themselves against those environmental pollutants, older folks will unavoidably accumulate more toxins that embattle tired regenerating cells while they continue aging.

With age and more toxic accumulations in the body that are not fought off comes a slower healing rate for wounds, and likely for other ailments. Also with age comes the notion that the apparent length of a year is nothing more than intuitive understandings of that proportion of life gone by, or a dilated compounding of memories. Perhaps, however, those psychological notions are confounded and correlated with the physiological aging of cells, something very debatable without knowing a cause.

So the problem of perceived time acceleration with age is slippery. By definition, perception is broader than memory, which is largely the ability to become aware of something that is happening, or of something that could happen even if it is unlikely. We can perceive events that happened in the past, events that will happen in the future, things that never truly happened, and things that we expect could happen but never would. But perceptions have special powers that can render illusions and presumptions as real and true.

Of course, as with all wonders, there are many theories that try to explain the phenomenon of changes in the perception of time in aging. The most popular explanation of why time seems to speed up in aging—which is smart, but wrong, or at least imperfect—is that a current year of life is a decreasing proportion of a whole life. It is an old idea, a linear model of human temporal impressions listing percentages of a year in the life of a person N years old.

A year in the life of a 10-year-old adds 10 percent. Two years would have to pass in the life of a 20-year-old to add that same 10 percent. It would take N years for a 10N-year-old person to have 10 percent of his or her life seem to pass by. It gives a mathematical line that appears to be close to what older folks feel is true, but the cause for that feeling is far too complex to have our time-senses guided solely by a single series of common actions.

But there are other factors giving the perception that time is speeding up with age, some apparent and some hidden, involving brain mechanisms designed for internal cell timings that contribute to our conscious sense of time.

Age definitely influences our impression of time’s passing, but not in the way we might expect. Each passing month or year is less weighty relative to a whole life. Yes, that offers a possible mathematical reason for what older folks sense is true, but the cause for that sense is far more complex. It ignores all those small yet significant moments that can happen at any time in a person’s life, those new and routine experiences, memories, travel, rewards, fears, and anxieties, all of which are confused by the havoc of the current pandemic.

As the years pass, daily experiences automatically become routine with too few distinct ones occurring with any lasting impact. Salient experiences that are landmarks on trails of life, like a first kiss, a first car, a marriage, or a fall that chips a front tooth, decrease, while age lumps days, weeks, and years into narrow bundles weighed as diminutive sachets of time.

Whatever steers the time’s sense of accelerated passing must come from multifarious hierarchies of intricately related inner signals that interact with the body’s understanding of how the life we lead convolutes with time. One of the biggest causes of the acceleration of time is the hierarchy of a person’s activity.

The active life gives the impression that time is moving slowly, contradicting the notion that boredom makes the clock run excruciatingly slower. That activity is intimately connected with body time, pulse, heartbeat, body temperature, and muscle memory, as well as brain activity. Time sense is one giant ball of interconnected feedbacks from the way we live. If we want to know the answer to why time accelerates with age, look no further than the activity of life, or at least the way we think about our own lives.

© 2020 Joseph Mazur